By ANDREW CLEVENGER COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE
Sneaker companies are hiring celebrity designers to create limited edition footwear.
Some collectors are paying up to $600 for shoes that they won't even wear out of the house. And the kicker? The sneakers, like good art, appreciate in value with time.
Don't touch West Smith's Silver Surfers. Or his Terminators. And especially not his Oompa Loompas.
These are his precious limited-edition Nike sneakers, for which he waited in line for hours and paid more than $100 a pair. Like a growing number of people worldwide, Smith is a collector.
The 31-year-old personal trainer began accumulating sneakers once he moved to New York from Annapolis, Md., last fall and discovered a community of like-minded footwear enthusiasts.
"I've always really liked shoes," Smith said, but he only became an aficionado after he relocated. "When I moved to New York, it all exploded. The collector in me took over."
Smith is not the only one with an appreciation for rare footwear. "Sneakers have taken on an icon status," said Bobbito Garcia, author of "Where'd You Get Those," a study of New York sneaker culture. "The insular community of people who want something different has grown considerably."
According to Garcia, Nike revolutionized the sneaker industry by releasing the first pair of Air Jordans in 1985. Thanks to the fame of their namesake, basketball legend Michael Jordan, the black, red and white high-top shoes attracted worldwide attention. Their continuing popularity caused Nike to re-issue past editions in the early 2000s, and a trend was born.
Today's "sneakerheads" can now read about their hobby in magazines like Sole Collector and Complex and discuss it in online forums. In April, Thames and Hudson, a publishing house best known for its art books, released "Sneakers: The Complete Collectors' Guide," written by the London design firm Unorthodox Styles.
To fuel the growing demand for high-end footwear, shoe companies frequently do "quick strikes," in which a limited number of a particular model of shoe will be delivered to a certain store with little warning to the public. News of an upcoming strike spreads by word-of-mouth and on Web sites like niketalk.com, which is not affiliated with the sneaker maker.
Collectors line up hours before the stores open, hoping to acquire the rare offerings. Companies also create a buzz by hiring celebrities to act as guest designers.
Reebok has cultivated a hip-hop connection, with Pharrell Williams of the producing duo The Neptunes and N.E.R.D., rappers 50 Cent and Jay-Z responsible for different sneaker designs. Nike recruited the Japanese professional skateboarder Iwasaki Shingo to create a special pair of Dunks, a high-top model with a padded tongue particularly popular with skateboarders.
Competition is so fierce that some collectors won't reveal where they buy their sneakers, said Carmelo Peguero, co-owner of Closet, a hip-hop clothing store in upper Manhattan.
"I have a lot of people coming up to me wanting to buy wholesale," he said.
This isn't just a New York phenomenon. Thanks to the Internet, high-end sneaker collecting has gone global. Because companies frequently "drop a colorway," or color scheme, in only one location, collectors must go online to purchase shoes unavailable in their part of the world. Opportunistic buyers race to snatch up rare models, and then sell them on eBay for huge profits.
In certain instances, prices soar almost instantaneously. Smith said he recalled seeing a pair of Nike Pigeon Dunks, so-called because a bird was stitched into the suede, sell for $2,000 on eBay after having been purchased earlier that same day for $300 at a Manhattan boutique.
Smith said he is more of a collector than a speculator, but he will occasionally sell a pair or two if the price is right. While he will wear a few of his favorite models, he keeps most pairs in mint condition by never putting them on his feet.
"As soon as I put them on, it's over. People don't buy shoes that aren't 'dead stock,'" Smith said, using the term for just-out-of-the-box. "Even lacing them up and trying them on in the store lowers the value."
Smith estimated that he had purchased 45 pairs of sneakers in the past six months, spending between $6,000 and $7,000. He pointed out that his collection was now probably worth between $10,000 and $12,000.
One store Smith frequents is Dave's Quality Meats in Manhattan's East Village that, despite its name, is an apparel store, not a butcher shop.
Shoes line the wall opposite a deli-style meat cooler, and the cash register sits on a butcher-block counter.
Co-owner Dave Ortiz, who designed his own pair of pink, brown and white Nike Air Max 90s around the theme of bacon, said that the sneaker craze is driven by nostalgia. Aging 20- and 30-somethings want to re-create the feeling of buying their first Nike Air Jordans, and that interest has created a ripple effect, with younger teenagers aping their style.
"You run to buy a piece of that time period," said Ortiz, 35. "You can appreciate it now."
Smith said he has long since run out of closet space in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Hermann, and shoe boxes line the wall of their living room.
On Feb. 14, he gave Elizabeth a pair of red patent-leather sneakers with the familiar Nike swoosh logo and a heart sewn into the material in white - the Valentine's edition of low-top Nike Air Force Ones, of course.
"She loved it," Smith said. "That was my version of buying flowers for her."